Getting work done well while on the job is the most important element of any office environment. However, creating a network of connected co-workers is essential to successfully complete that goal. How can you help remote teams feel connected to one another without a shared work environment? A virtual water cooler!
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What is a virtual water cooler?
A virtual water cooler is an online version of “water cooler chat.” “Water cooler chat” is what happens when coworkers take a short break from work and socialize. Whether they discuss professional projects or their personal lives, chatting together “around the water cooler” is a great time for employees to refresh and reconnect.
You don’t need a literal water cooler to make “water cooler chat” happen. People talk during lunch breaks while making coffee, or printing copies. All this to say, being physically present in the office provides plenty of time for casual bonding and conversations.
COVID has disrupted that dynamic. While many companies have adapted to remote work, creating organic conversational situations has continued to be a challenge. How can organizations ensure employees have ample opportunities to connect, despite the distance?
The answer is to create a remote version — the virtual water cooler. This is a digital situation that allows people to bond in a way similar to the in-person opportunities that exist in the physical office. While the scenarios may have to be more structured rather than spontaneous, working from home is no excuse to stop the conversation!
Why is a virtual water cooler important?
Creates a sense of belonging
With employees scattered across a city, country, or even the world, distance regularly makes employees feel isolated. Virtual water coolers create open communication for team members, providing opportunities to develop camaraderie and feel like a valuable part of the group. They break through the discouraging barriers of time zones and solely work-related interactions.
Helps people feel involved
Virtual water coolers, much like their physical counterparts, can also increase professional employee engagement as people feel more naturally involved in their work environment.
Inspires better work
Chatting with co-workers, whether about personal topics or work-related subjects, can give birth to new ideas beneficial to the company culture. Often talking through thoughts and ideas helps people naturally reach new conclusions and plans of attack. Therefore, virtual water cooler conversations encourage collaboration and fresh thinking.
Tools To Create A Virtual Water Cooler
Here are three easily applied solutions to create a virtual water cooler to ensure team members feel connected.
1. Have a question of the day
An easy way to keep the conversation happening is to have an ice breaker question of the day asked by a designated person in the company’s digital chatroom of choice (i.e. Slack, Google Hangouts, etc.).
Co-workers can chat about each other’s answers at their convenience and learn new things about team members!
Chatting apps are also perceived as less formal than emails or video meetings, which can allow co-workers to feel more comfortable opening up.
2. Play a game
During a company virtual meeting on a video call, try playing an online game for Zoom! This allows team members to loosen up and feel more comfortable and connected to the people on the other side of the screen.
3. Shout out team members
The whole point of facilitating a virtual water cooler is to help bridge the conversational gaps that happen from remote work. One way to get people talking is to shout out team members and acknowledge their accomplishments! Noticed a co-worker putting their all into a big project! Shoot them a chat message to say so or mention it during the next team huddle. Read an interesting article? Email it to the team and ask for their thoughts in the email thread. Finding casual ways to keep conversation going is the best way to make your virtual water cooler stick.
Virtual Water Cooler Activities
If you want to schedule a more formal online water cooler hang-out time, make sure to include some virtual team building activities! While they may require a slightly higher level of planning, they often bring a greater reward. From professional development options to activities solely meant for fun, engaging online team building activities are an effective addition to any virtual water cooler strategy. Here are four easy activities to try during your next scheduled virtual water cooler:
1. Watch a quick TedTalk
Watching a team building TedTalk and then discussing afterward and be both inspiring and conversationally stimulating! You can choose a video that’s pretty relevant to work or something more random that the group may find interesting. Sometimes the random topic is more fun because it offers a break from all the corporate talk.
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2. Discuss your goals
Sometimes we get so caught up in the whirlwind of daily corporate life that we forget what we’re even doing it for! During your next virtual water cooler, make it a point to talk about what you like about your job and how you want to grow in your skills. What are the future career goals everyone has? This can re-align and re-inspire the whole group!
3. Do a round of trivia
Trivia is a great way to learn something new together! A little competition is also fun and obscure facts are great conversation starters. You can also play full-on virtual trivia games depending on how much time you have to dedicate.
4. Talk about hobbies
You may be surprised by the niche interests of some of your coworkers! Giving people a chance to discuss some of their passions outside of work is a fantastic conversational opportunity. It’s also a surefire way to learn more about the people you work with and feel more connected to who they are as a person, not just an employee.
Virtual Water Cooler Tips
1. Don’t make it awkward
Avoid asking uncomfortable, or yes or no questions that may kill the conversation. Instead, ask engaging questions that the majority of people would be able to answer to get the conversation flowing!
2. Make it easy
Not all team members are chatty, especially on a video call. Try not to force people to be in a call one-on-one and have them make conversation, especially if they wouldn’t normally talk to that person alone face-to-face.
3. Have a theme
When scheduling these virtual water cooler conversations or virtual coffee breaks, having a theme can sometimes give people an easy conversation starter. Whether the theme is to drink their favorite kind of tea, talk about their hometowns, or share a funny memory, having a common ground theme makes things both easy and fun!
Anecia is a Nashville-based writer who believes in the power of team building. She writes a variety of content focused on creative corporate team building ideas, to help teams become more dynamic, unified, and successful.